Covid-19 has shone a spotlight on existing and continuing inequalities in our society. The most vulnerable people, who are living in challenging socio-economic conditions, have been the most negatively impacted by the outbreak of the pandemic on multiple levels.
Several studies have linked poverty in adulthood with depressive and anxiety disorders, psychological distress and suicide. Now, if we zoom in on how Covid-19 is accentuating already precarious living conditions, we can only assume the catastrophic impact that it is having on the mental health of those in low-income communities.
Millions of people are struggling to put food on their tables. During the lockdown, many people have been sent home without pay and others are now unable to continue running their small street businesses or doing piece jobs in order to survive. In addition, the need for food has increased as everyone needs to eat at home, children can no longer benefit from school feeding schemes and some workers can no longer rely on eating a meal at their workplaces. The stress caused by the uncertainty of not been able to provide for their families and at the same time, not being allowed to leave home to try and find a solution, it is excruciating.
As an organisation, we have so many examples of this. When we call people to find out how they are doing and offer food vouchers, their reactions and personal situations keep breaking our hearts. These two quotes from our clients might summarise the overall situation, “I can’t believe it, I was in the middle of a prayer and God answered me (loud cry). I and my two children haven’t eaten for the past two days and I did not know what to do next” and “we live eight people in a two-bedroom shack, we are all above 18. No one is working. We are trying to survive with the money from my mom’s old age grant.”
Adding to the stress generated by the lack of an income, the majority of those who live in low-income communities have also generally not been able to self-isolate. The overcrowded living conditions and often the lack of household water and sanitation means that people are in closer proximity to each other and this reality increases their chances of infection. These precarious conditions have exerted extra pressure on mental health with increasing levels of fear and anxiety.
Incidents of Domestic Violence have also surged during the lockdown. The Gender-Based Violence National Command Centre was established to deal with this serious phenomenon and can be reached on 0800 428 428. It was reported that the government’s GBV Command Centre received a spike on calls (2,300) and complaints between the first week of lockdown - 27 and 31 March 2020 - alone. And we all know, that the number of unreported cases should outnumber the reported ones.
To add to the complexity, the people that continue working from low-income communities are often on the frontlines such as nurses and cleaners at hospitals, supermarket staff and petrol attendants amoung others. These workers are often at high risk of contracting the virus and overworking themselves. Their levels of anxiety about their health and their loved ones to whom they return each day or only after weeks (health professionals) is nerve wracking.
Access to constant information in the form of anxiety-provoking news on media networks as well as the abundance of misinformation on social media adds to the stress.
While the immediate and necessary focus is on controlling the spread of Covid-19; we warn that more focus needs to be allocated to the mental health of the population. We commend government’s efforts towards economic relief by increasing social grants and establishing the Covid-19 social relief grant. However mental health and wellbeing must also be addressed with more robust initiatives if we want the most vulnerable to fully recover after the Covid-19 pandemic is over.
About the writer:
Salesian Life Choices, also known as Life Choices is a Cape Town based NPO that has, during the lockdown, been providing Covid-19 awareness, psycho-social support and food vouchers to beneficiaries the organisation is in contact with. Following the lockdown regulations, the psychosocial service provided by the organisation has been moved to online platforms which beneficiaries have access to. Life Choices has opened their psycho-social services to anyone in need people can send an SMS or a 'please call me' to 081 817 8907 and a therapist will reach out.